Just looking at the creature set his skin to crawling, and all Thor could think was that Loki had made alliance with this thing. And wondered, as he had before, what kind of desperation he had been in to think…
He wished, not for the first time, that Odin would let him visit Loki in his prison. Speak to him. But for the moment, his presence was required here, with the Chitauri emissary and his mother and father, listening to overtures ostensibly of diplomacy. He had stopped paying attention a long while ago, and Frigga elbowed him subtly to bring him back.
“…do the Chitauri, who have been enemies of Asgard, offer in exchange for this favorable alliance?” Odin was saying, and Thor held in the urge to sigh. I don’t like this, he’d said to Odin, at the conclusion of their first day of talks, and Odin had given him a serious, considering look.
Nor do I, he’d said, but they must be dealt with. If we do not have care, the ripples of your brother’s mischief may spread far and wide.
Thor still didn’t like it. Still felt something prickling against his instincts, not quite unease, but a kind of wariness. He struggled to focus.
“We have brought you a gift,” it said. “A gesture of goodwill. Thanos wishes you to know that any injury done to you he counts as done to himself.” Thor tensed, the itch of something wrong only growing, but Odin remained still.
“And what is it,” he said, voice cool and calm, carefully measured in the way Thor thought he would never be able to master, “Thanos thinks to gift us?”
The creature made an expression that looked like a sneer but was probably intended as a smile. “This,” it said, and gestured back to its comrades. One stepped forward from the little cluster, dragging something with him, and flung it on the floor before the throne.
Frigga made a strange, strangled noise and her hands flew over her mouth. At first Thor didn’t understand why, because even if whatever it was was filthy (leaving a red smear on the floor) and looked grotesque, his mother had seen worse. More alarming to him was the insult of gifting them-
He understood it a moment later. Or rather, recognized. Under the grime and blood and filth, Thor could just make out the gleam of pale skin, matted dark hair, torn green cloth. He surged to his feet, stomach in his throat. He heard Volstagg, sitting with his friends off to the side (as part of the guard, they had insisted on it) curse under his breath.
“Thor,” said Odin, simply, warning, and Thor was about to wheel on him and ask if he knew, but then he noticed Odin’s hand clenched on the side of the throne, shaking very slightly. Thor wavered. “Explain yourself,” the Allfather went on, to the emissary. He wasn’t moving, Thor thought, panicked. Hadn’t made a sound on hitting the floor, even, how…
“We bring to you the traitor Loki.” (Not Loki, Thor’s brain insisted, it couldn’t be Loki, not…that thing, limp and helpless and unmoving.) If the emmisary could not grin the expression was clear enough in its voice. “Thanos has deemed him duly chastised for his actions. We return him to you, contrite and-“ He paused, cast a look down at Loki that made Thor want to break his bones one at a time. “—largely harmless.”
Odin stood. Thor could see his knuckles whiten where they were wrapped around Gungnir. “You had no right,” he said. “Loki is of Asgard. His punishment was for us to decide, not you. Your master presumes too much.”
The creature did not seem surprised, or concerned. “My master meant no disrespect,” it said, with a lack of contrition that was anything but respectful. “We were clearly misinformed; I was told that the traitor Loki was not of Asgard at all. Besides, the offense of this traitor was not only to your people but to him as well, and-”
“I am not deceived,” Odin said, sharply, cutting it off. “Your master would see fit to threaten me and all of Asgard.”
“You see a threat in the return of this wretch? The eye of Odin sees treachery where there is only goodwill.”
Loki still hadn’t moved. Thor couldn’t even see if he was breathing. “You had no right to lay hands on my brother,” he burst out, unable to keep his silence, and this time Odin didn’t even glance at him. The emissary did, however, and sneered.
“You are quick to claim this crawling dog, this sniveling cur-”
Thor jerked a step forward and managed to stop himself as Odin’s voice rolled out like thunder. “Enough. You have given your message. I have given mine. Now go. Your welcome here expires.”
“Will you keep our…gift?” the creature asked, and Thor vowed to himself that if it looked at Loki like that again he would have its head. “Or do you scorn that as well?”
“Go.” Odin’s voice held hints of thunder.
“As you will, Allfather,” said the emissary, and he and his comrades turned for the door. He paused, just before it. “I wish you good sport of your traitor.” Thor’s fingers itched for Mjolnir.
The moment the door closed, Thor bounded down the steps and over to the crumpled figure on the floor, pulling him to his back, straightening his limbs (as they could be, Thor felt sick) and checking desperately for-
“Thor?” Odin’s voice was sharp.
“He lives,” Thor said, and heard his own voice tremble with relief. Loki’s breathing was shallow, his skin death-pale, but the blood on the floor was from relatively minor wounds, and Thor could breathe again, just a little.
“Fetch the healers,” Frigga was saying to one of the guards, low and urgent, and, “Quickly, man!”
“Loki,” said Thor, not truly expecting any response, “Loki, it is well, you are safe, you are-”
Loki’s eyes snapped open.
The green was almost filled up with black, and his breathing hitched, becoming ragged and uneven. His eyes flickered unseeing back and forth, terrified, wild. His hands twitched at his sides. “Loki,” said Thor, a bit more loudly, leaning down a little closer. “Loki, do you hear me, please be calm-”
Loki’s right hand twitched and jerked toward Thor. His eyes slid down from his face, unfocused, distant, and locked near his waist. His breathing evened slightly and Thor relaxed. “Yes,” he said, soothingly, “It’s all right-”
“Thor, your knife,” Sif cried, but too late as Loki’s quick fingers wrapped around the hilt and pulled it loose. Thor jerked, scrambling back out of reach defensively, reflexively.
Frigga saw the truth of it first, of course. She cried out, a wordless sound, and jerked forward, and a moment later Thor grasped it too and was trying to recover the distance he’d lost. He didn’t reach Loki in time.
His brother’s eyes, half-crazed and feral, met his without recognition. His mouth split into a snarl of a grin, and he slashed the knife deliberately deep across the inside of his own thigh, and the only thing Thor could find in that unfamiliar-familiar gaze was triumph.
Loki knew knives. Better than any other weapon. Knew where they were deadly and where they were not. Thor might not have the same intimate knowledge, but he knew that the bright red pumping onto the floor was coming in the rhythmic spurts of heart’s blood. The kind of wound that could bleed out even one of the Aesir in minutes.
He lunged forward, heedless of the knife still in Loki’s hands, and clamped his hand over the wound. Loki’s head fell back, the knife clattering to the floor, and it took Thor a moment to realize that the thin sound shaking through his brother’s wasted body was not one of pain but a breathless laugh.
He felt sick.
“Somebody help!” Thor roared, without thinking about it, and then Frigga was kneeling beside him in the spreading pool of blood (his hands, not big enough, blood still gushing out through his fingers) and shoving a bundle of cloth at him, heavy velvet and silk. The curtains, he realized, a moment after pressing them to the wound, trying not to listen to that awful sound-
His head spinning, it took Thor a moment to realize that Loki was pushing feebly at his hands, trying to pry them away. His gaze was still out of focus, but he was speaking, words ragged and broken but clear enough: no more. No more.
Thor pressed down harder.
“Where are the healers?” He heard Frigga say, her voice cracking, but he only had eyes for Loki’s as they slowly slid shut, and he was kneeling in so much, too much blood, hands clenched cramping on sodden curtains.
The healers stopped the bleeding. Loki’s breathing was shallow and weak, his heartbeat labored, but he still lived.
Barely, and in a sleep closer to death than life, but he still lived. The grim faces of the healers suggested that might not be a permanent state of affairs, whatever encouraging words they offered aloud. Thor had seen all the blood in the audience chamber after Loki had been removed, and it had looked like so very much.
“He didn’t know where he was,” Frigga had said, resting a hand on his shoulder. “He didn’t know you, Thor,” but that was only so comforting, because what had been done to Loki that he did not even know his own brother, and that death seemed a refuge to which he might escape?
And how had Odin not known, how had the All-Father not known that Loki was not in his cell, or had he known and lied, kept this deliberately from him-
He could not think clearly. His mind was clouded.
Loki’s hand lay limp and pale in his, empty of the flush of life and the nails usually so well tended ragged and torn back to the quick. Behind him, Thor heard the door open.
“Did you know?” he asked, flatly. “Please, tell me-”
“I did not know,” said Odin, heavily. “Or rather…I knew that Loki had escaped, but-”
Thor felt a wash of anger. “And you did not tell me?”
“There was nothing you could have done. He left no trail, no trace-”
Thor realized that his hand was squeezing Loki’s too tightly and let go hastily, though Loki had not flinched. Or stirred at all. “You should have told me.” His jaw clenched. “I thought him safe. Restive, perhaps, angry, certainly, but safe. And now-”
Loki’s body looked small, wasted. Bruises mottled his chest and sides, his limbs now straightened but livid scar tissue still visible where the skin had been rent by broken bone. And pale, so pale. He felt sick, and looked away.
“I am sorry,” Odin said, heavily. “For you, and for him. This was never what I intended. Had I known…I thought that if Loki fled he must be certain of his safety, but perhaps it was that fear which drove him to run. I would not have had this happen, Thor.”
“And yet it has,” Thor said, and could not hate the bitterness in his voice. “And here he lies on the very edge of death. And also you would not have had him fall, and would not have had him find the tale of his heritage in the way that he did, and yet those happened as well.”
“I know you are wise,” Thor said, dropping his eyes. “And you are my father and my king, so my obedience belongs rightly to you. But in this…with Loki…I am troubled.” The thought flitted across his mind, what if he doesn’t wake, and the last time you spoke to him…
Just before the trial. He’d been angry – with good reason – and he’d demanded to know if it was worth this, if his petty revenge was worth the consequences, and Loki had said, just before they sealed the muzzle over his mouth-
If I have caused you any pain, then yes. It was worth it.
Thor pushed the memory away and looked down again at Loki as he was now. Wasted. Beaten. Broken. Odin’s hand fell heavy on his shoulder and then dropped away. Thor did not watch him leave. Reached again for Loki’s hand and held it between his own, clever fingers cold and limp. It was no reassurance.
“Loki,” he said, quietly. “Come back. Let me know how to make this right.”
There was no answer.
Thor wondered if there ever would be.
Loki’s eyes opened for the first time a week later. He had been slow to mend. Too low on resources, the healers said. His body was deprived of nutrients and strength, devouring itself in a circle of healing one thing and destroying another in the process.
Thor was not there to see him wake. He heard only after Loki had been subdued once more, for despite his weakness he had woken half mad, filled with a kind of frantic rage that had him nearly taking out one of the healer’s eyes with his nails, screaming at them in some unintelligible tongue. Thor heard the news with a sinking heart.
“If I had been there,” he began to say, and Frigga shook her head.
“You could have done nothing differently,” she said softly. “It was better that you were not.”
He went back to the infirmary, however, and looked at Loki’s body lying quiet and still once more, his bloodless mouth set in the smallest of frowns. It took him a moment, lost in melancholy, to notice the healer hovering by his shoulder.
“Will his mind return?” he asked, carefully, and the healer glanced away.
“I do not know, my prince. It is difficult to…we seldom deal with injury of this nature, and it seems fickle and subject to whims impossible to predict.”
Loki shifted and stirred with a small, quiet sound. The first movement Thor had seen him make, and he looked at the healer in alarm. She shook her head. “It is only a lighter sleep,” she said. “Magically imposed.”
Thor felt a vague, brief kind of horror, thinking of Loki trapped in sleep, perhaps dreaming horrible things that Thor did not want to imagine. How long, he wondered, had Loki been captive, how many times had they rent his body until his mind surrendered as well-
He did not want to think of it. And yet his mind kept wandering there anyway, drawn by Loki’s condition, by how thoroughly beaten down he was.
“It would seem I have failed you again,” Thor murmured, once more wrapping one of Loki’s cool, limp hands in his. “Give me a chance to mend that failure. Please, brother. Give me that chance.”
Loki, of course, gave no answer.
Thor reinstated his vigil. Or as much of a vigil as he could make it. Whenever he was not needed somewhere else, he made his place at Loki’s bedside. The healers did not let him wake again, however, and he simply seemed to sleep, quietly and for days on end.
And if he was mending, it was so slowly that Thor could scarcely see it. Could only see the scars still there, remnants of even older wounds, cruel wounds, that had pushed Loki to and past the edge of his endurance.
Sometimes it was too much, sitting there and looking at what had been made of his brother, what had been done to him, and Thor had to leave to beat out his violence on the training courts against some unfortunate opponent.
It was there that Sif found him, eventually. They’d spoken little, since Loki’s…return. She’d come with him to his watch once, watched tight lipped and stony faced, and left before long. She was still angry, Thor thought, on his behalf, at what Loki had done.
She didn’t look angry now, though, facing him with her arms crossed. If anything…worried. “Thor,” she said. “May I have a bout?”
“Always, my friend,” he said, “Though be warned, I am not in the best of tempers.”
“No,” she agreed, perhaps a little tartly. “You haven’t been. Not since-” she stopped. Thor wondered how she’d been about to put it, and decided it was probably better not to ask.
They went at it, as they always had, without reprieve or mercy for either of them. Sif took the bruises without complaint and gave back as good as she got. Without Mjolnir, Thor had to admit, it was entirely possible that she was the better warrior.
“I hope you’re not blaming yourself,” she said, when they had beaten each other into a sweaty, breathless pause. “For…what happened to Loki.”
What happened to Loki. She made it sound so blameless, as though this were just some chance that could not have been avoided. Thor looked away and felt himself tense. “I do not blame myself for anything that is not my fault.”
“None of this is your fault.”
Or all of it is, Thor thought bitterly. If I had seen sooner, if I had been a better brother, a better prince- “Sif…”
“He is not your responsibility,” she went on, stubbornly, and Thor stood up straight and glared at her, feeling a sudden flare of anger.
“No,” she repeated. “He is not.”
“Then whose is he?” Thor demanded, his voice rising without his meaning it to. “Whose fault is it, then, that he was taken from here and tortured for who knows how long, without aid or succor or hope? Whose fault is it that my brother, already sundered from us, may not even live out the year? Whose fault-” His voice broke. He kept thinking of that look in Loki’s eyes, that mad look, brittle and triumphant that he might escape, even into death. It still made his stomach turn, remembering.
Sif seemed to see something in his eyes, her expression turning apologetic.”Thor…I’m sorry.”
“This is the second time,” he said, suddenly. Sif blinked.
“The second time…what?”
“The second time that Loki has…made an attempt on his own life.” His heart felt heavy as lead. “On the Bifrost…I told myself that he slipped, but that is not so. I saw…I saw him give up, loose his hold and let go. And I reached but I could not-” He broke off and lifted his eyes to Sif’s face. She looked horrified.
“I didn’t know. I thought…I wouldn’t think that Loki would…”
“Nor did I,” Thor said heavily. “I cannot imagine…it pains me, to think that he holds his life so little, that he would reach for death believing it the better option. And I must believe that there is something I could have done, or else – or else how can I think that there is anything I can do, now, to bring my brother back to us?”
Back to me.
Sif was looking at him with a strange expression on her face. “Thor,” she said, and stopped. “—he’s not dead.”
“No,” he said heavily, “but if his mind never returns to his body…is that better? If he forever remains as he is now, mindless, feral, or bound in sleep…”
“I’m sorry,” Sif said, after a moment. “Thor, I…not for him. I can’t forgive what he did to you. But for you. And for your sake, I hope…”
She trailed off. Thor did not help her. He knew he had no right to be angry, knew that she had every right to hold her anger against Loki, but he could only think of the brother he’d known and loved, and that smear of red on the marble floor as the Chitauri flung him down.
Sif left him eventually. He did not mark her departure.
Frigga joined him at times.
She went at other times by herself, he knew, and wondered what she did those times, if she spoke to Loki, what she said to him. But he did not ask. Did not dare to. Frigga’s anger was slow to kindle and slower to burn, but it burned long and hot like the last embers of a fire, apt to wound the unwary hand. And Frigga was angry.
It took him some time to realize it, but she was. Thor could not be sure, but he thought some argument between her and Odin at the core. He did not ask.
During those times when it was the two of them, together, they spoke to each other. Remembrances, mostly. Fond memories of Loki, as if they could draw him back that way.
The time passed both too slowly and too fast, measured in the incremental healing of surface wounds – and, the healers assured him every time he asked, the more important healing of those deeper wounds. Thor did not have the stomach to ask after their nature.
Today they were both quiet, Frigga’s gaze turned inward and Thor’s eyes on Loki’s too thin hands resting limply on the blanket. He would not starve, but…
“What if he doesn’t return to himself?” Thor asked, and thought too late of the cruelty of the question as his mother’s lips trembled.
“Then I, at least,” she said, and if her expression wavered her voice was hard, “Shall care for him as long as I am needed. I will give my son what I can, and not surrender him again.”
Thor swallowed. The next question was harder to ask, and, he feared, cruel as well, but… “And if…if he does, and he is still…angry?” He could not say ‘mad.’ “If he still hates us?”
Frigga sighed, quietly. “My answer remains the same,” she said. “I will do what I can, and we will…find a means of keeping both him and others safe. I refuse to do less.”
Thor ducked his head, chastened. “I’m…sorry. I shouldn’t-”
“I’m not angry at you, Thor.” There was, perhaps, the slightest emphasis in that, and Thor picked up on it and frowned, hesitated, dared to ask.
“At father, then?”
Silence, for a moment, then Frigga said reluctantly, “yes. I’m…angry with your father. I feel he has let his feelings cloud his judgment, and his fear of what your brother may do outweigh his fear for what has already been done to your brother.”
Thor’s brow furrowed. “Odin loves Loki.”
“Yes,” Frigga said, and sighed. “Yes, he does. But he feels responsible for the damage Loki has done. And he fears the damage Loki might still do if unchecked. Your father struggles with many burdens, and I know this is not an easy one. Nonetheless, I am still…displeased.” She gave him a small, faint smile. “Do not fret at it, my son. We have had disagreements far more grave than this.”
Frigga had reached out, Thor noticed, seemingly without realizing it, stroking Loki’s hair back. He was as still as ever beneath her gentle touch, though he imagined he saw his eyelids flutter. He will come back, he thought determinedly. He will return.
“Mother,” Thor said, at length. “I wished to…as often as Loki denounced me and father…he did not speak against you. Out of us all…I think he yet loves you the most.”
Frigga looked up, and smiled, though it was a sad expression. “It warms my heart that you would say so, Thor,” she said. “And I am glad, and hope that he will let me be a bridge between him and you when he is well. But do not mistake anger for lack of love. Your brother loves you still. He will remember it yet.”
“Prophecy?” Thor asked, hopefully.
“No,” Frigga said, and rose, coming around the bed to bend and kiss Thor gently on the forehead. “Just a mother who knows her boys.”
The days passed. The visible wounds healed. Loki’s body wasted to skeletal thinness, still death pale. Thor continued his vigil.
Sif came once or twice, briefly, to touch his shoulder, but her eyes, Thor noticed, avoided Loki. Volstagg, of all people, accosted him when he emerged to eat or sleep or change and insisted on reports of Loki’s progress, awkwardly but earnestly. Fandral avoided the matter altogether but watched Thor sidelong with worry, and Hogun seemed quieter than usual.
He had begun to bring books from Loki’s room, and to read them in a quiet voice, hoping every day to hear Loki’s voice chiding him for mispronouncing some word or another. Today, busied by his reading, it took Thor several moments to realize that Loki’s eyes were open. The familiar bright green, the pupils still too large, but clearer than they had been. And staring at him in dull silence. As though he were waiting. Thor jerked to his feet in surprise.
“Loki!” he said. “Norns, you’re – do you know me? Do you know where you are?”
Silence. Loki’s eyes were unblinking on him, and Thor could read nothing in their depths.
“Loki,” Thor tried again, “Brother,” and Loki hissed in a sharp breath. Thor froze, wavering, but Loki did not lash out. His eyebrows pulled down and his expression seemed slightly…uncertain. Doggedly, Thor pressed on. “All is well,” he said. “Please, remain calm, you are safe-”
The sharp noise from Loki’s throat startled Thor, and he cut off. It took him a moment to realize it was a laugh. “Well,” his brother murmured, and his voice was rough and hoarse and awful, nothing like Loki’s voice was supposed to be. “That is unfortunate. For a moment you were almost real.”
“What?” Thor said, blankly, and Loki’s eyes closed again.
“It was the ‘safe’ that gave you away. I know that now, that nowhere is truly safe.” Loki’s voice was tired, and harsh, but perfectly calm. Such exact contrast to his first two wakings that it set Thor’s spine to crawling.
“Loki,” Thor said, slowly. “Where do you think you are?”
Loki’s mouth tipped in a small, wry smile. “If I am lucky, dead, but as I never have been, I presume…not.” The chill in Thor’s bones deepened. “You are not doing a very good job at this,” Loki went on. “Really, you ought to be stroking my hair and assuring me that it is all fine, that you will let me come to no harm and so on and so forth. Though I suppose you might think that altering your formula would help.”
Thor’s stomach was tying itself into knots. He understood, or thought he did, and wasn’t sure if it made him want to run or made him want to smash things. “Loki,” he said, slowly, “I know not what you think is happening, but I am here. You are in the healing chambers on Asgard.”
Loki’s eyes opened again, suddenly. “Ah, of course. I am sorry. And now you will ask me what has happened, what I remember, what I know of the defenses-” His pupils dilated, too wide again. “You bore me. Your inventiveness is boundless, to be sure, but there are limited flavors of pain and I think by now you have squeezed the last from this one.”
The fear was a low and intensifying hum in him, now. Something was wrong, something more, something worse. “Speak plain,” Thor said. “I do not understand…I cannot follow the way of your thoughts, brother.”
“You have so many ways to wring what you want from me,” Loki said, and his voice had gone even softer. “But this is, I think, your favorite. To play at kindness. To give me what you think I most desire. I will give you nothing. If nothing else, then out of spite.”
Thor’s heart sank into his stomach like a stone. He wanted something to fight, something to lash out against and hurt for doing this to Loki, but Thanos was beyond reach. For now, he thought ferociously. For now. Not forever. He reached out to grip Loki’s shoulder and froze when Loki flinched back, eyes widening a fraction before he controlled his expression.
I can’t do this, Thor thought, desperately. “Loki,” he tried again. “Truly, it is…it is I. I want nothing from you but that you be well.”
Loki snickered, but Thor could see little shivers running through him. “Well,” he said scornfully. “I was never…I was the disease to be cut out. I will never be well. Thor knows that now. Sees it. You only prove to me-”
“I know no such thing,” Thor exclaimed, sharply. His chest hurt like his heart was going to split in two. “Loki, please, listen to me! When we were-” he swallowed. He had to think of something. “When we were young. It was the first day of spring, just after your birthday. I said we were going to go riding together, and then pretended I’d forgotten so you waited for me for hours. I didn’t really forget, I was just – I was angry that you were spending more time in the library than with me.” Thor looked away, ashamed. But Loki had suddenly gone quiet.
“I remember,” he said, slowly, and there was something strange, hesitant in his voice. “I…remember that.”
“If it were not me,” Thor said pleadingly, “Would I know such things of my own mind? Would I admit them to you if I sought only to have your pain?” He could see Loki wavering, and pressed. “You are not dreaming, or caught in some madness, brother. You are here, in Asgard, with me. And you are safe. I will not let any harm come to you again.”
“You promise much,” Loki said, still in that strange voice. Thor set his jaw.
“And I will keep my promises.”
Silence. Thor could feel his heart thudding too loudly and tried to remain still, calm, but his eyes were fixed on Loki. Loki who suddenly shuddered, and then said, very faintly, “Thor? It’s…you? Really-”
He let out an explosive breath. “Yes,” he said almost fervently. “Yes, it’s me.”
Loki’s breath in was ragged. His eyes fluttered closed and he was perfectly, perfectly still. “Ah,” he said, barely an audible exhale, “Ah.”
Then he twisted around and threw up over the side of the bed.
Thor was shooed out by the healers almost immediately once they realized Loki had woken. He tried to argue, but to no avail, and for all he hoped Loki would ask him to stay, he did not. Did not speak another word, in fact, after vomiting – twice – only lapsing into a sort of almost nervous quiet, eyes skidding everywhere but to Thor’s, his lips pressed together into a thin line as though he feared what he might say.
Don’t be ashamed, Thor wanted to say, I don’t think you weak. I don’t think badly of you. I could not. But the words stuck in his throat and he could say nothing, only feel utterly and hopelessly useless, as he had ever since Loki had been thrown to the floor before him, bloody and broken in flesh and spirit.
He went to his mother, not knowing what else to do. Wanting to take solace in her calm.
“Loki has woken,” he said, when she opened her door to him, and Frigga stood, taking several steps forward and her eyes widening.
Thor cast his eyes down. “Yes. The healers are…but you would probably be let in.”
Frigga started toward the door, her face brightening but she paused and looked at him. Her expression dimmed again just as quickly.
“Are you not intending to accompany me?” she said, after a moment. Thor chewed his lip, an old habit, and made himself stop.
“No,” said Thor, after a moment. “I don’t think…not just now.” Frigga frowned, slightly, hesitated, and checked her step.
“Awake,” she said softly, voice falling with disappointment, “But not well.”
Thor looked at his feet. “May I come in?”
“Yes,” Frigga said promptly. “Of course.” She stepped back, and Thor moved forward into her room, feeling awkward and wrong-footed on top of his unhappiness. He sank into one of her chairs and waited until she sat across from him.
The words burst out of him in a rush he didn’t intend. “He thought I was a sending when he woke. A – a torment of the mind, from Thanos.”
Frigga’s face crumpled for just a moment before it was smooth again. “Could you…did you have the chance to persuade him otherwise?”
Thor fidgeted. “I…yes. I managed to convince him that I was…only his brother. Or – only Thor. But he did not seem relieved by it, only was – ill, and then fell silent and refused to speak with me. I don’t understand, mother.”
“Oh, Thor,” Frigga said, and sighed, closing her eyes, lines of pain etched in her face. “I’m sorry. I feared…it might be so.”
“What might be so?” Thor demanded. Frigga opened her eyes and gazed at him levelly.
“That the gravest wounds are on Loki’s mind and soul, not his body, and no rest will mend those so easily.”
“I would help him,” Thor said plaintively. “Does he not know that?”
“He may not,” Frigga said, and Thor flinched as if her words were a blow. “Thor…from what you have said, Thanos used your guise against him. Before that – though it was not by your choice, I know – you were at odds. That you managed to convince him that you were but yourself means a great deal, but it does not undo that his strongest memories of you right now are painful.”
Thor deflated. “And besides,” Frigga added, with a small, sad smile. “Loki has never liked you seeing him when he is not well.”
That was true. Thor had always found it maddening, Loki’s tendency to hide when he was hurt, to creep into some corner to lick his wounds and refuse Thor’s help. Thor looked down at his hands, but the image flashed into his mind of Thanos using the image of his hands to hurt Loki, the thought that Loki might see him more as tormentor than brother, and felt sick again.
“I will kill him,” Thor said fervently. “I care not how long it takes, I will see him destroyed for what he has done to Loki.”
“I know,” Frigga said quietly. “But Thor…right now your brother needs help more than vengeance. He may have woken, and it seems certain he will survive, but the real battle is likely just beginning.”
Thor was not allowed back into the healing chambers for another three days. He learned, through careful questioning, that he was not alone in being turned away, that his mother also had been met with a closed door, by order of the All-Father. Thor was for a moment tempted to insist anyway, but…
He did not quite dare.
When he was finally allowed in, Loki was awake, aware, and sitting up, though he still looked as though one sharp wind might shatter him. He sat there too still, dull eyes straight ahead, hands open and loose on his bedding. Thor hovered in the doorway, uncertain.
To his surprise, Loki spoke first. “Either leave or enter, Thor. I have no use for your guilty waffling.”
Thor almost flinched, but not because the words were unduly sharp. More because they were not – dull like Loki’s eyes, lacking in his usual edge. Spoken as though they had been rehearsed but without any true feeling. He cleared his throat. “If you do not wish my company…”
“It has become clear to me,” Loki interrupted, still in that same perfectly cool, level voice, “that what I wish is irrelevant.”
“That is not so,” Thor objected. Loki’s head turned and he gave Thor a sharp look with a glimmer of something more familiar, but a moment later it was gone.
“Isn’t it? The last decision of my own I tried to make…you yourself thwarted.”
It took Thor a moment to understand, and then he sucked in a breath through his teeth. “Loki…surely you do not mean…”
Loki looked away again. “Do not become hysterical. It suits you poorly.”
“I am not hysterical,” Thor objected with some vehemence. “But if you are suggesting that I ought to have let you end your own life – I could never.”
“Evidently,” Loki said, and turned his eyes back to the ceiling. “What have you come to say? I do not doubt you have an eloquent speech prepared.”
Thor flushed. He had. It had seemed the best thing to try, since he always seemed to come out so poorly in conversations with Loki, to try to plan what he meant to say before hand, so he could not be sidetracked and detoured the way Loki always seemed to manage. “I do not know that I would call it eloquent. But I do…I do wish to have words with you, brother.”
“Still ‘brother?’” Loki’s voice was sharp, cutting for just a moment, and then flat and even again. “Stubborn indeed. What will it take to chase you away, Thor? What will it take to prove to you that I do not-”
“I’m sorry,” Thor said, loudly, and over Loki’s quiet but insistent voice, and to his utmost surprise, Loki actually fell silent. Though only for a moment.
If anything, his expression became more wary. “You’re sorry. Whatever for? All know that you have done nothing wrong. Could not, surely.” The mocking edge crept back into his voice, however slight. Thor closed his eyes.
“You have suffered much you should not have had to. What wrong I have done you…I may not understand what drove you to madness, but I had some part in it, and I am sorry for that. That I have not been…the brother to you that I perhaps should have been.”
“Don’t strain yourself.” Loki’s voice was thick with sudden disgust.
Thor set his jaw. “You cannot tell me I have not wronged you.”
“But you do not understand why.” Loki’s voice was flat. Thor frowned.
“I…am not sure that I do. Not all of it, at any rate, but if you would-”
“Accepted,” Loki said, cutting him off. There was still no intonation to his voice. His eyes turned toward the ceiling. Thor blinked, feeling as though he’d been rowing a boat and it had abruptly capsized.
“Your…apology,” Loki said. “I accept it. Was that all?” He did not sound as though he accepted anything. Or forgave anything, or…anything. Thor frowned, trying to work out the catch.
“You do?” Then he shook himself. “I mean to say – I am glad. Does that mean…”
“No.” Loki’s eyes closed. “It means nothing more than what I said. I accept your vague apology. You owe me nothing, and are entirely free to go.”
Thor felt his heart sink. “Loki…”
“I don’t want you here, Thor.” That was clear enough.Baldly stated. Thor could not hear even a bit of room for negotiation in Loki’s voice. Only flat, certain, finality. He wavered, but…
That was Loki’s right, wasn’t it? Thor could give him that much. If there was truly nothing else he could do…at least he could do that much. Give his brother one small thing. He felt his shoulders slump, though, as he turned slowly toward the door. “Since you wish it, brother…I will go. And I hope…” He fell quiet.
Loki said nothing. Still once more.
“I hope you will forgive me,” Thor added, finally, quietly. “Someday.”
He went out.
Thor had intended to stay away from the healing chambers until he was called back – if he was called back, if Loki ever asked for him, if if if. He asked Frigga for news, and received it – Loki was healing, but slowly, he still slept much of the time, he spoke little to anyone and snapped at those he did speak to. He ate too little and woke screaming from nightmares that he passionately denied having. Every new word of Loki’s suffering was a knife in Thor’s side.
His determination did not last long, and Thor went to Loki’s room. It was not the first time he had visited since – Loki’s fall, when he’d taken up the habit of coming here to think, or to remember, or – to grieve. And weep.
Everything was as untouched as he remembered, immaculately clean. Loki’s room, but it no longer had the feel of him. Feeling strangely disquiet suddenly, this place now that Loki was with them once again his younger brother’s inviolable sanctuary, Thor grabbed a few books at random from the shelves and, squaring his shoulders, set off for the healing chambers.
He knocked first, but entered without waiting for a response. Loki appeared to be asleep, on his side and facing away from the door. Thor could see the tension in his shoulders, though.
“Loki,” he said carefully. “I have…I have brought you some of your books.”
Loki did not answer. Thor hesitated, hovering in the doorway for a moment, wondering if it wouldn’t be better…
But he couldn’t just give up. Let Loki drive him away. Lose his brother in truth. “I did not know what to bring,” he went on, forcing the words out. “So I simply…chose a few that seemed likely. If there are others, or different ones you would like…” He trailed off, lamely. The silence continued.
He took a step in, and then another, walked over and set the books on the table beside Loki. Looking down, he could see that his brother’s eyes were open, but strangely dull, still, lackluster, as though his surroundings held little or no interest to him.
“Loki,” Thor started to say again, slowly, and was cut off.
“Did I not tell you not to come here?”
Thor jerked, but it was speech, and that was…something. “You said you did not wish my presence. But I…could not in truth…I wanted to see you again.”
“You wanted to see me again.” Loki’s voice was dull again, that strangely drained state of unnerving calm. “Ah. Of course. And your desires are still the only ones that matter.”
Thor winced. “I do not believe it is for the best for you to remain alone.”
“And you would know what is best for me.” There was a hard, bitter note to Loki’s voice, for just a moment, but then it was gone. “What is it you want, Thor?”
Thor sat heavily in the chair by Loki’s bedside, what had become his accustomed post. Loki still looked so thin, his face gaunt, his fingers thin and fragile. “What is it I…nothing more than to speak with you, and keep you company as you recover,” he said, blinking a little at the question.
“Nothing more than that.” Loki closed his eyes and exhaled a short laugh. “And after I recover? What then? All returns to how it was?”
Why not? Thor wanted to ask. Why shouldn’t it? But he held that to himself and said carefully, “What do you expect will happen?”
“I am a traitor to Asgard,” Loki said, his tone almost bored. “Surely you haven’t forgotten. Justice must be done. I cannot simply go free.”
Thor stiffened. He hadn’t thought… “Father has said nothing…”
“He wouldn’t, would he?” Loki’s mouth turned up at one corner. “Punishment must be meted out, though. If he is unwilling to do it now, it is because it would be insufficient spectacle. In this state I am hardly…a dreadful enemy.” His voice turned dry, mocking, but for once that blade wasn’t turned against Thor.
“You cannot think that Father will punish you further than has already-”
“Your father, not mine.” Loki’s eyes opened, and they were hard. “It will not be punishment. Or not primarily. Containment, I think rather. I am too dangerous to run free and unchecked. So he will bury me. And I would sooner that than return to what you would have.”
Thor’s temper rose slightly. “You would sooner imprisonment than return to a mother who loves you? To a father who misses you? To me?” Thor planted his feet, even sitting, as though he was about to fight a battle. “I will not lose you again. I will argue your case with Odin if I must, to let you stay here. Where you belong.”
“I don’t belong here.” The way Loki said that made Thor want to flinch. Not defiant, not angry, simple fact. Thor shifted.
“You do,” he said, insistently. “Or – or at least you belong with me. I do not feel whole without you.”
Loki coughed a harsh sound that was barely a laugh. “Sweet words.”
“I mean them!” Thor said, with some frustration. “You have always said I was a poor liar – am I lying now? I mean what I say. I have not been as good to you as I could have been, perhaps, but from now on – things will be different. I am different now, and I will not make the mistakes I did before.”
“For how long?” Loki’s voice rose sharply. Thor recoiled.
“For how long?” his tone was nearly shrill. “How long will this fit of conscience last, that drives you to act with such magnanimity? You feel guilty now, you feel pity for my wretched state but how long until you forget, until…” Loki laughed, short and sharp and cruel. “It won’t last. It never does. I know you, Thor. You mean your guilt, while it lasts, but you always forget.”
Loki’s words struck him like blows. Was that true? Was he truly – had he really been so- “I am not here because of guilt!” he cried. “I am here because I wish to be!”
Loki scoffed harshly. “You expect me to be convinced by such melodramatic protestations-”
“I love you,” Thor said, loudly, and as when he’d apologized, Loki’s voice cut off sharply. “I love you,” Thor said again, before he could regain it. “I wish – I wish there was a way I could express it that might reach you, so that you might know…but I am not you. I have no gift with words.”
“What is it, exactly,” Loki said, his voice caustic, “you hope to wring from me with these practiced speeches?” Thor watched his eyes, though, and could see them flickering around the room as though he were unwilling to look directly at Thor. “What more is it you want from me-”
“Loki,” Thor said. “Loki, listen to me.” He wasn’t sure what Loki heard in his voice, but whatever it was, it silenced him, and his eyes finally fixed on Thor’s face. Whatever he saw there – they widened, and he almost seemed about to flinch back. “I thought you were dead,” he said, forcing the words out. “After you fell…let go. I watched you disappear into the void and I thought then that I – if I had but reached a little farther, I told myself, if I had but found different words to say…” Thor swallowed hard. “I was – it was a torment, Loki. I couldn’t understand what had gone wrong. I was angry with mother, with father, and most of all with myself, because you are my brother and hadn’t I always said that I would protect you?” Thor didn’t look at Loki’s face, lowering his eyes to his hands clamped together on his lap. “And I had not, and you were gone. I kept expecting – I kept expecting that you would come back. That I would turn a corner and wake up and you would be laughing at me for ever believing…there was a funeral but I could not stay, I could not…”
Thor took a ragged breath. “And then…and again, here, I thought you would die. I thought that I would have to watch you perish, again having failed you, again…I could not have tolerated it. I have never been so afraid as I was when you struck against yourself, or when I waited for you to wake not knowing if you would ever return. I would face a thousand battles, a thousand thousand foes, than feel that fear again.”
“Thor,” Loki said, and his voice sounded strange, but Thor hurried on.
“I love you as I love no one else,” he said, loudly. “The place you have in my heart is one no other can claim. When you are not there, when you are suffering or unwell – it is as though half of my heart is torn from my chest. I am not – I am not myself without you, Loki. I am not whole. And I only wish I knew…”
“Thor,” Loki said again, and Thor realized, suddenly, that Loki’s hand was on his arm, bony fingers barely resting there, but still a presence. “—stop.” There was something in his voice that Thor was just unable to recognize. “Just…stop.”
“Loki,” Thor tried to say, and those bony fingers, to his surprise, squeezed.
“Please,” he said, and Thor looked up, suddenly, and realized that Loki was trembling, very minutely, but his eyes were on Thor’s face, if only through his lashes. “Stop. I can’t-”
Thor froze, feeling a little as though he’d just been stabbed. Everything he’d said, and it had only – he’d only-
“How can you say that,” Loki said, still in that strange voice that was almost a hoarse whisper. “How can you say…after everything I’ve done to you. After everything…”
Oh. “Because you’re my brother,” Thor said. “And I will let nothing – nothing – change that.” Loki seemed to shudder with his whole body as though he’d been mortally wounded. “I could not hate you. I do not want to.”
Silence, for a few moments. Then another of those shudders. “I’m sorry.” It was barely audible, but it was the words, and Thor felt himself stiffen. So very rarely, so very rarely had Loki ever apologized. Not in words, at least. In actions, or gestures, or other things, but the words themselves…
“I forgive you,” Thor said at once. Loki hissed in a breath.
“Don’t,” he said, voice suddenly sharp. “Don’t. Forgive me. I’ve done nothing to earn it.”
“And that is why it is forgiveness,” Thor said. Loki’s shoulders hunched. He looked pale, weak, and, Thor thought, frightened. “I would not have you look back. I would have us both look forward.”
Loki’s eyebrows pulled together. “The past does not vanish because you wish it to, Thor,” he said, with some of his old asperity, though too quietly.
“I know that.” He did. There was much that needed to be done. And perhaps this was not so much as it seemed, so monumental as it felt, but for him… “What would you have me do?”
Silence, and Loki closed his eyes again. “I don’t know. I can be of little enough use from here.” Another of those quiet, almost soundless laughs. He looked tired, suddenly, exhausted. Thor frowned. He hadn’t thought of how little energy Loki must have, still; how tired he must be.
How far they had still to go.
“There’s one thing you can do for me, brother,” Thor said, and moved to take Loki’s cool hand between his, press his fingers between his warm palms. Loki did not quite tense, but there was some slight wariness to his features.
“And that is?”
Thor managed a smile. Let this be enough, he thought. Let this be a beginning.
“Heal,” he said.